The Best Easter Sermon Ever

Posted on April 9, 2012

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open hands in black and white holding a chandleThis weekend our little Unitarian Fellowship had to come up with a last minute Easter service because our planned guest speaker was sick. I found this beautiful sermon online, and did my best to present it without sobbing. You can listen to me read this beautiful  and moving sermon (with a few pauses were I reached for tissue, or had to compose myself). The sound quality isn’t the best as we were experimenting with a new system. Luckily, the entire transcription is available so you can receive the message without any ear strain.

~

Rescuing the Resurrection

An Easter Sermon

Given by Evelyn Ruth Thompson

Hopedale Unitarian Universalist Community

March 23, 2008

Well Happy Easter and here we are again having graced the children, some of us, with bunny baskets and colored eggs nestled in strange crinkly green stuff which, long after we’ve put it away, seems to resurrect shred by shred in our carpets. Where would we be without our symbols of rebirth?

And that reminds me of Garrison Keeler’s story about the Lutheran fellow who got invited to a Unitarian Easter service by his girlfriend. Say, the fellow asked a friend, what do Unitarians do at Easter anyway? Oh , they talk about the rebirth of spring, the bud on the branch, ducklings, chicks, the lamb on the green … But mostly he said… they avoid mentioning you know who.

Well, now Garrison, begging to differ. I’m not about to flinch as I bring up the resurrection of you know who……. though I do find myself wondering every Easter how any thinking adult can believe that a dead person got up, walked out of his tomb, ate dinner with friends, and floated off the planet. Then to add to my amazement, I take into account Sir James Frazer’s book, The Golden Bough, which tells of Osiris in Egypt. Dionysus in Greece, Attis of Asia Minor Adonis of Syria, Bacchus of Italy, and Mithras in Persia to name but a few mythical heroes all of whom rose from the dead long before Jesus came along.

Finally there’s what few modern Christians, or much of anyone aside from Religious Scholars and Unitarian Universalists seem to know; which is that a number of early Jesus believers, known as Christian Gnostics, themselves, disavowed the physical resurrection calling it “extremely revolting, repugnant and impossible”.

And toward what does any of this resurrection business, literal or not, point but a fundamental need to believe that, like the bud that appears every spring on the bare black branch, death does not spell the end for us either? We have evidence of this long-standing belief having excavated the graves of early Homo Sapiens who buried their dead with an assortment of tools and trinkets. We can read of it in translations of the ancient Hellenistic manuscripts, which proclaim that the immortal soul is all that is real.

We know that Buddhists and Hindu believers subscribe to spiritual sustainability which is recycling of the human soul by means of reincarnation. Of course Islamic martyrs look forward to sharing paradise with 72 black-eyed virgins and orthodox Christians insist, meanwhile, that people will pop out of their graves at the end of time.

Guy Claxton, author of the Wayward Mind a history of the unconscious mind puts it this way:

“Death is one of the most fundamentally and universally puzzling aspects of human life. The newly dead body of a friend or relation is like them in a way, and yet utterly unlike them in its stillness. Where has all that energy, all that personality, gone? What was it that they had while alive, and so obviously have no more? Surely there must be some force, some principle of life that has disappeared. Surely this must be associated with the breath, the first and last vestige of life; the pneuma, the spirit. Surely this spirit cannot simply have been extinguished; surely it must have moved on [or will eventually be awakened] rather than been snuffed out.”

So finally, we find much of the human race believing that we all have what Claxton calls a kind of “divine microchip” implanted in us, the indestructible essence of our being…more commonly known as the soul.

It is the personal conviction of many Unitarian Universalists however that consciousness is dependent upon the viability of the brain. Of course, then, if the brain dies, so does consciousness along with whatever one wishes to call the soul. Yet, believe it or not, for even the most adamant non-believer in immortality , one can still be inspired by the resurrection myth by looking beneath its surface.

An especially vibrant example of what I’m driving at here lies in the true life account of Dr. Viktor Frankl, one of the key figures back during the 1960’s in the field of existential therapy. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl describes his own brand of resurrection while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp called Turkeim.

“In spite of the enforced physical and mental privation of life in a concentration camp, wrote Frankl, “It was possible for [one’s] spiritual life to deepen. In order to make myself clear, I am forced to fall back on a personal experience. So, let me tell you what happened on those early mornings when we had to march to our work site.

“There were shouted commands. “Detachment, forward march. Left 2 3 4 , Left 2 3 4”……. “First man about, left and left and left”….. “Caps off”….. “left and left” These words sound in my ears even now. We passed the gate of the camp and searchlights were trained upon us. Whoever did not march smartly got a kick. And worse off was the man who, because of the cold, had pulled his cap back over his ears before permission was given. We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: ‘ If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.

“That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. And a thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.

The truth that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”

Frankl’s account brought to my mind a Hindu saying:

“The lotus rises through the murky waters of ponds and lakes yet, when it blooms, it floats upon the surface, its petals shining and untainted by the mud from which it has emerged.”

We may, in other words, discover our finest selves in the midst of the most sordid of circumstances. We know that by his own account Viktor Frankl changed during his incarceration at Turkeim from a rather ordinary, though certainly good, person to an immensely more compassionate one who dedicated himself to helping people find meaning in their lives no matter how miserable their surroundings.

So while neither I nor anyone can prove that  his consciousness continued beyond his death in 1997, it is certainly clear that while Frankl was alive something beautiful and lasting rose up from within him in the most dispiriting environment imaginable. Probably, every one of us has or, unfortunately, will experience a time of great despair…. less severe than Frankl’s, hopefully but still so painful, that the thought of going on even another day may be or have been saturated with dread.

In the words of UU intern, Kelly Asprooth-Jackson:
“How has your heart known its winter? Has the smoky smell of sorrow come drifting up to you from the cracks and crevices of life? Or has it come rushing in, in earnest, as a river that leapt its banks in a storm?”

To be candid, I have found myself wishing at such times that I believed in some great, caring deity who watches over us. But on the other hand this would be like succumbing to what certain Hindu practitioners call “cat grace”, which means that someone or something outside ourselves picks us up and deposits us wherever we need to be………. about as naive a theology from my point of view, as can be imagined.

Yet, there are times when we have no choice but to hope for a kind of secular “cat grace,” . There will be days in each of our lives when we are so devastated by trauma that we can survive only if others, at least for a while, hold us up as did Frankl and his work mate in the work lines at Turkheim.

Many years ago, I lost someone I had loved above all others from the time of my earliest memory; hence was I thrust into a world of blackness similar to what Jungian analyst, June Singer, describes as emersion into “ the darkest depths of shadow” one can find.

Secular Cat grace was exactly what I needed back then and I received it , but in a setting I would not have expected during a series of leisurely summer afternoons, sipping strong black tea and munching on chocolate cookie sticks called poky. You see in exchange for English lessons, four young Japanese women were teaching me their language in their homes. But the words we exchanged were often for silly things like hang nails or hangovers, or dust bunnies. Or maybe we’d watch a B grade Japanese movie and the women would translate the dialogue along the way. Or they’d tell me long, drawn-out, Japanese stories about lost children, dying lovers, or ancestor ghosts.

So, to tell you the truth, I was taken aback when during one of these frivolous and often giggly sessions the colors of everything and everyone in the room became ever so slightly more vivid before my eyes. Probably it was only that sunlight coming in through an adjacent window had come out from under a cloud. But, in any event, it was also the first moment I knew for certain I was going to pull back from the abyss.

“When I was sinking down,” goes the hymn, “sinking down, as when I was sinking down beneath my sorrows ground, friends to me gathered round, o my soul, o my soul.”

And so it was for me. But as we begin to resurrect from trauma, we must search for ways to regain courage on our own. There is a belief that comes to mind to which the early Indian Buddhists subscribed. It’s called “monkey grace”. This is where the parenting monkey carries the child, yes, but the child must hold on… If we are to rise from the depths of sorrow, we must attach ourselves, as did Viktor Frankl, to a new or renewed belief in something stronger, truer, more vivid to us than our deepest and most persistent pain.

Perhaps we will find the answer through melody , poetry, narrative, or, as I did, one fall afternoon. I was sitting on my grandma’s front porch, several months after she had died, and sunlight came through the autumn leaves of a maple tree in her yard giving everything around me the subtle cast of gold.

“O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay
“Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew me this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year…”

There are many who view moments such as those of Viktor Frankl’s imaginary conversations with his wife as delusion, and I do not deny that they probably are. But I will tell you from personal experience that when one feels captive to unremitting pain, what the mind manufactures, whether trick or vision, is a gift if it answers in the affirmative what Camus called the only fundamental problem of philosophy and that is “… whether life is or is not worth living.

A few years after World War II a woman being examined by a doctor. had on a most unusual bracelet. It was made of baby teeth all mounted in gold.

“A beautiful bracelet,” the doctor remarked. “Yes,” the woman answered, “this tooth here belonged to Miriam, this one to Esther and this one to Samuel…” She mentioned the names of her daughters and sons according to age. “Nine children,” she added, “and all of them were taken to the gas chambers.”

Shocked, the doctor asked. “My God woman, how can you live with such a bracelet?’

Quietly, the…woman replied. “I am now in charge of an orphanage in Israel.”

But now I have an irony for you.. Irony because I hope that none of you actually needs this message today ….. that you are not, in other words, dealing with anything resembling a Dark Night of the Soul.

But come a time, during one or the other of life’s vast assortment of sorrows , however staunchly you feel obligated to believe in what is empirically verifiable…. I hope that you won’t so restrict yourself. For, it is good to surrender now and again to one’s own rendition of “cat grace” and it is even ok to indulge one’s self with a smattering of delusion …… if , like Albert Camus it will help you look back and say:

“In the middle of winter I at last discovered there was in me an invincible summer.”

“The thing is,” wrote Ellen Bass,

“To love life
to love it even when you have no
stomach for it, when everything you’ve held
dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands
and your throat is filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you so heavily
it’s like heat, tropical, moist
thickening the air so it’s heavy like water
more fit for gills than lungs.
When grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief.
How long can a body withstand this? you think,
and yet you hold life like a face between your palms,
a plain face, with no charming smile
or twinkle in her eye,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you again.”

Resurrection…

Amen

References:

1 Frazer, James George, Sir. (1970).The Golden Bough. New York: Limited Editions Club

2 Pagels, Elaine. (1989). The Gnostic Gospels (p.5). New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random
House, Inc.

3 Claxton, Guy. (2005). The Wayward Mind An Intimate History of the Unconscious (p.57). London: Little,
Brown

4 Ibid (p.58)

5 Frankl, Viktor E..(2000) Man’s Search for Meaning (pp.36-37).Boston: Beacon Press

6 Chaikhana, (2008) Sacred Poetry from Around the World. Retrieved March 21, 2008 from
http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/Themes/Lotus.htm

7 Asprooth-Jackson, Kelly. (February 19,2006). “Embracing the Fullness of Life”. Sermon presented at
Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma, CA. Retrieved March 17, 2008 from
http://www.uupetaluma.org/sermons/sermon19fe06.html

8 Singer, June. (1995). “The Evolution of the Soul”. In Segal, Robert A. (Ed.), The Allure of Gnosticism
(pp. 59-60). Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing.

9 Hart, Connie Campbell. (1993). “What Wondrous Love”. in Singing the Living Tradition (p.18).
Boston:Beacon Press

10 Millay, Edna St. Vincent (1999). “God’s World”. In Schoonmaker, Frances (Ed.), Edna St. Vincent
Millay (p.42). New York:Sterling Publishing Co.,Inc.

11 Camus, Albert. (1991) “The Myth of Sisyphus”. The Myth of Sisyphus”. The Myth of Sisyphus and other
essays (p.3). New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.

12 Moser, G., 1978, Wie finde ich den Sinn des Lebens? Freiburg. in Frankl, Viktor. (2000). Man’s Search
for Ultimate Meaning (p.142). New York: Basic Books.

13 Camus, Albert. (1991) “Return to Tipasa”.The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays (p.202). New York:
Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.

14 Bass, Ellen. (1999). “The Thing is to Love Life”. In Roberts, Elizabeth & Elias Amidon (Eds.). Prayers
for a Thousand Years (p.53). New York: Harper Collins.

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